Snakes on a Plane sounds like a title that Don Simpson, at 4 in the morning, scrawled in white powder on a glass table, or perhaps a pitch by Entourage’s Ari Gold to his favorite client (”snakes on a plane — BOOM!”). It acknowledges, with a bluntness that passes for a wink, what the vast majority of Hollywood titles do not: that the movie it’s adorning is a concept, nothing more, one that wears its brain-deadness on both lapels. That, of course, is just what everyone is getting excited about. For months, the anticipated trashiness of Snakes on a Plane has been a marketing hook in the form of a universally shared in-joke, as the bloggy chatterers, in their very mockery, have made themselves part of the hype machine. Yet what, exactly, is the joke? If this cornball exploitation disaster movie had been called Anaconda 3: Flight of Fear (or, as was once planned, Pacific Air 121), we could all stop pretending that there was something exotically tacky about it.
But enough highbrow critical analysis! Why are there motherf—in’ snakes on this motherf—in’ plane? Because Eddie (Byron Lawson), a gangster who preens like a Bruce Lee impersonator, has stashed dozens of the slithery, poisonous suckers aboard a double-decker red-eye flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles (they’re stowed in the animal-cargo hold, in boxes that are triggered to open via computerized timer), all to keep Sean (Nathan Phillips), an FBI witness, from testifying against him. You know what you’re in for as soon as the first toxic leatherneck slides down a hole in the lavatory, where a sexpot and her surfer boyfriend are working on their membership in the mile-high club. The snake hangs in the air, then opens its fangs and pounces, clomping down on the girl’s naked breast. To call these folks victims would be overstating it. They are meat, like the pretty idiots who get terrorized by psychos in dried-skin masks. Their gruesome demise is just a gag, a momentary production number.
Is Snakes on a Plane a cheesy fun bad movie or a bad movie, period? I’d say about half and half. The mostly digitized snakes curl through the airplane’s bowels so readily that you quickly get used to them, and director David R. Ellis’ idea of tension is to cut the lights in the cabin to a twilight murk and overdose us with shaky-cam as the plane is jostled by a thunderstorm, with its pilot dead of a heart attack. The snakes, a zoological Whitman’s Sampler of rattlers, pythons, cobras, and exotic intercontinental species, are not shy. They’ll chomp on anything that sticks out, from tongues to more, you know, sensitive appendages, but the violence grows a bit too baroque too early. I enjoyed seeing a rattler with half its body wriggling down some poor woman’s eye socket, but after a handful of tasty attacks like these, the movie has nowhere to go. The giant boa constrictor, with its widening jaws, gets the best moments, and I wish it had more of them.
That chop-socky villain isn’t the only relic from the ’70s; so is everyone on the plane. The sexy flight attendant who comes on to the FBI witness with her coffee-tea-or-me smile (he’s so boring that she must like him because he’s in first class); the British snob businessman with hair plugs; the princess who totes a chihuahua named Mary-Kate in her designer handbag; the Diddy-lite hip-hop star with his What’s Happening!! posse; the leering co-pilot who’s about as suave as Ron Burgundy; the flight attendant who’s taking her final voyage before law school, played by token actress-you’ve-actually-heard-of Julianna Margulies — all deserve to be terrorized because they’re such sketchy and forgettable Airport ‘06: A New Beginning Jane and Johnny One-Notes. Next to this sorry crew, it’s hardly a surprise that Samuel L. Jackson, as the FBI agent who’s escorting the witness, looks like Superman. He starts out all calm and friendly, taking much longer than you expect to work his way up to steam-out-the-ears funky high dudgeon, and since he’s the only one on screen with a spine, the audience greets his every action-movie directive (”We’ve got to put a barrier between us and the snakes!”) as if it were a holy command to hoot and holler.
I went to see Snakes on a Plane at the 10 o’clock show on Thursday night, and the mood in the theater was a cross between what you’d expect to find at a Star Wars sequel and a midnight show of Bedtime for Bonzo. Just about all the trailers — the new Denzel Washington thriller; the gonzo Beerfest — were greeted with mild hisses. Mockery hung in the air. As Snakes started, a few cheers went up, but the sneer never quite disappeared: It was applause as a form of one-upmanship — a desire for entertainment, yes, but also a celebration of the audience’s superiority, its power over the movie. More potent than anything in Snakes on a Plane is the fantasy offscreen: that if enough people talk up their desire to see this film and, at the same time, take an overt delight in what an unabashed piece of junk it is, they will fuse with the hype, with the movie’s mystique. They will not just watch Snakes on a Plane; they will own it.